- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Tumblr
Diversity has been a Hollywood buzzword for several years now, but the real challenges faced by filmmakers from minority or marginalized communities in getting their stories made and seen came into sharp focus at a series of panels at the American Film Market (AFM) this week.
The success of non-U.S, non-English-language content, like Netflix’s Korean series Squid Game, attests to a growing global appetite for films and shows coming from outside the assumed “mainstream.” Yet the myth remains, as any indie producer at AFM trying to secure financing for a film with a diverse cast will attest to, that diverse stories don’t sell.
“Well, I’m here to tell you that it’s all a myth, it’s not true,” said Darnell Hunt, dean of the Division of Social Sciences and Professor of Sociology and African American Studies, UCLA. “The global audience looks a lot more like American diversity than Europe, I mean Europe is only about 18 percent of the world’s population and maybe 22 percent of the world GDP. All the rest is this rainbow around the world who want to hear diverse stories. And one of the things we’ve seen in the U.S. context is that, as diversity has become more common on-screen, diverse audiences flock to it, they want to see that. They’re not going back now.”
Speaking on an AFM panel organized by the NAACP, Hunt blamed Hollywood gatekeepers for not greenlighting more diverse content.
“All of our data shows that 92 percent of studio heads and CEOs are white, and about 87 percent are male. That freezes out a range of voices,” he said. “White supremacy is real, and it works in many different ways – some of it is intentional, some of it is implicit bias … some of it is lack of imagination to appreciate and recognize a quality story when you see it because your experience does not support it. That’s why it’s important to have diverse voices in the executive suites for greenlighting these stories and we just don’t.”
Speaking on a separate AFM panel, Christopher Kahunahana, whose debut feature Waikiki (2020) was the first-ever full-length dramatic feature written and directed by a Kanaka Maoli, or native Hawaiian, said that “big change” is happening on the level of writer’s rooms and in story development — “people want to see more stories coming from [marginalized] communities” — but that most distributors are still reluctant to embrace diverse films.
“I think that’s where the big change has to happen,” he said. “But I think the market will catch up [because] the audiences really like it. You can see from The Eternals, Chloe Zhao’s film, where she is helming this gigantic [diverse] movie … or with [FX series] Reservation Dogs. The market is starting to say: ‘this is what people want to see.’ Hopefully, distribution will catch up.”
Fellow filmmaker Iram Parveen Bilal, the Pakistani-born director of Against the Grain and I’ll Meet You There, said the hardest challenge for creators from marginalized communities remains “access to funds and access to eyeballs … of course, it is harder to [find money to ] make movies from marginalized groups and when you do make those stories it is harder to get them out to audiences beyond those groups.”
Her advice to filmmakers wanting to tell these stories? “Find your voice … be more commercially minded to keep your investors. And find the right money. Because the right money is going to care for your message and not just an ROI (Return on Investment). And then the ROI will come.”
All agree that streaming has been a game-changer for the industry. Hunt pointed to a report that showed that the list of the top 200 films worldwide released last year was the most diverse in history. This, he argued, was because many smaller and more diverse films were released via streaming platforms and because theaters were largely shut due to the COVID-19 pandemic they could compete on a level playing field.
“These [smaller movies] never would have made our sample if we’re only looking at theatrical releases. And what that did was show the ways in which diverse audiences really gravitated towards diverse content once they knew it was there.”
Mo Abudu, CEO of EbonyLife Group and an African industry pioneer, said Netflix has been a trailblazer by embracing global content, including African content. “They’re on the [African] continent because, you know what? They don’t want to leave anything on the table. There is a massive audience there,” she noted. “There are a billion people living on the continent, the internet is spreading around the world, they are getting subscribers, so they are deciding to invest in local stories for local and local stories for global.”
The opportunities are there for Black and other diverse stories to reach the global mainstream, Abudu argued.
“We have to, as Black content producers, find our Squid Game and find those big projects that make studios realize that we are worth investing in.”
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day